Army Couple Finds Help After Pain of Iraq and Deaths of Their Three Children

Dallas Morning News

January 3, 2008 – CIBOLO, Texas – In near-freezing temperatures Thursday, Spc. Austin Johnson and his wife, Lisa, cut through a yellow ribbon stretched across the porch of their new home and walked in to a house full of furniture.

The move into the new home – their first house since the couple married right out of high school – is bittersweet for the Johnsons.

Last August, Spc. Johnson, 27, received a traumatic brain injury from an improvised explosive device blast in Iraq, his fifth explosion in two tours.

Tragedy struck again in October, not long after he began rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center. Their three children were killed after Mrs. Johnson’s car was overturned by heavy winds in West Texas as she drove from El Paso to be with her husband.

“There are a lot of Johnsons out there,” said Amy Palmer, co-founder of Operation Homefront, the nonprofit group that called on local businesses and dozens of donors to help the Johnsons.

More than 30,000 troops have been wounded in six years of war; and as many as 100,000 may experience post-traumatic stress disorder.  Officials with Operation Homefront hope Thursday’s event serves as a model to help other wounded service members whose lives have been disrupted by war.

“This house represents a new beginning for this family,” said Mrs. Palmer. “But it’s also a call for mortgage lenders and homebuilders to sell excess housing at discounted rates to provide a new start for other wounded warriors and their families.”

The nonprofit group provides emergency assistance to families of deployed military and wounded soldiers. It’s helped more than 45,000 military families in need since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and given more than $5 million in financial aid.

Once inside, the Johnsons found a house full of furniture provided by KB Home.

“Oh, wow,” Spc. Johnson said, plopping down on a sectional couch. “Who would think so many people would pull together for us?”

Mrs. Johnson, 26, smiled.

“This is more than we expected,” she said.

“The Johnsons are part of a new generation of wounded warriors and their families who are slipping into destitution and homelessness,” Mrs. Palmer said. “As they transition from the military to VA, they don’t know for up to two years how much income they’ll have. And all of them will need housing in affordable suburban communities near VA medical facilities.”

Operation Homefront heard about Spc. Johnson and his family as he began a long, tedious therapy for a traumatic brain injury at Brooke Army that left him with speech problems, migraines and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The main need, Mrs. Palmer said, was emergency financial assistance. Financial difficulties caused by the strain of two deployments, a payroll mix-up and his injuries forced the couple to file for bankruptcy.

Then, in October, as Mrs. Johnson drove with their three children from their home in El Paso, a strong wind flipped her Chevrolet Trailblazer near Ozona. Two of the children – Ashley, 5, and Logan, 2 – died instantly and Mrs. Johnson was injured. Tyler, 9, died a month later at a Dallas hospital.

Operation Homefront immediately put out a call for help, and businesses, civic groups and individual answered.

Officials with the PGA Tour, the professional golf organization, contacted local businesses and raised $80,000 in two days. The groups eventually raised $140,000 – enough to pay off the Johnsons’ debt, buy a replacement vehicle and make a down payment on the new home closer to where Spc. Johnson will continue rehabilitation.

The Johnsons fell in love with the two-story, three-bedroom, two-bath home near Cibolo, a suburb of San Antonio. The sellers dropped the price to $154,000 and paid the closing costs.

USAA, an insurance company that specializes in military officers, financed the 30-year mortgage at 5.87 percent when no other lenders would take a chance because of the Johnsons’ bankruptcy.

And KB Home provided an additional home-warming gift of linens and cleaning supplies.

Having the new home will allow the couple some “breathing room as they transition from one life to another,” Mrs. Palmer said.

As the Johnsons walked through their new home, it began to sink in that this was their place.

“We’re going to put pictures of the kids all over the place,” she said. “We have thousands. We won’t run out. This is our place, but it’s dedicated to them as much as us.”

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